Getting a tattoo in a language that you don’t understand is rarely a good idea. Hell, even tattoos in people’s native tongues are often hilariously misspelled or misinterpreted.
Tattoos written in Hanzi and Kanji (the Chinese and Japanese character sets) became popular in the west in the late 1980’s, although there was a niche among sailors who visited the Far East for many years prior. Western tattoo artists usually copy a character from a template, something that is often unreliable and can easily lead to context errors if a direct translation is attempted. For example, in 2001, Britney Spears got a Chinese tattoo inked on her bikini line. She believed that the tattoo meant ‘mysterious’ but later on, it is found that this tattoo means ‘strange.’ Combining the characters to form a phrase or idiom can lead to even worse disasters, as meanings can change completely and you end up with something like “demon bird moth balls” forever inked on your skin.
So you have to ask yourself then – why do people still do it? After all, you are relying on others to get the meaning right, and it can come across as weird or even offensive to Chinese or Japanese people who feel that you might be trivializing or insulting their ancient cultures. So the best advice is – don’t. Unless you have done scrupulous research and are fully aware and accepting of the cultural connotations!
Scroll down to see some funny and cringeworthy examples of people getting it completely wrong for yourself, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!
My buddy has “illiterate foreigner” in traditional Chinese characters. It’s dope
Late to party, saw a Canadian guy and asked him what he had asked the tattoo artist ”I asked him for some bad words, something really bad”. It’s said “economic recession”
40+ year old bald white guy with Chinese characters that translated as “I’m a cute little princess” on the length of his forearm.
Had a good laugh the rest of that day.
Wanted a tattoo in Chinese that said “I am a vegetarian,” got a tattoo that said “I am made of vegetables.”
I knew a girl at university who had some Chinese characters down her arm.
Came in one hot summer day and I finally saw the whole thing.
It said; Emergency exit. Do not block.
My wife is Chinese and the best one she has personally seen was “fat dumb American” on a guys leg.
I was TDY in Japan for 90 days, and I didn’t know very much Japanese at all, but the wife of a guy I worked with was fluent, and at a small command function she pointed out this complete asshat of a guy at the detachment I was with whose back tat read “child changing station”. He told everyone it was something like “strength, loyalty, determination”.
my friend got “translator server error” tattooed on his arm. needless to say he wasn’t very happy after i told him
I once saw this middle aged dude wearing “金魚佬” on his shoulder (the rough literary translation is “Goldfish Man”), which in cantonese means a sleazy older man who creeps on younger girls/children. Basically a pedo. Wonder under what circumstances he got that inked…
I have my Chinese zodiac in Chinese letters on my arm. I worked with a guy who was from China and spoke almost no English. When he saw it his eyes lit up, pointed at my arm and said “hahaha cock!”. I’m the year of the rooster…
I probably shouldn’t be saying this as the person who had this done to them is my best friend but…sh!t…here we go again… My best friend who we’ll call Sarah got a tattoo when she was 16 (where I live, you’re supposed to be 18) her dad passed away about 3 years ago and she wanted to get a tattoo on her wrist to remember him…instead of getting his name which would’ve been easier…she decided she wanted to get “dad” in Japanese…it’s been 2 years since then and I still haven’t told her that it says “turtle” I know that she’ll hate herself if she finds out and to be 100% honest…I kinda like it…I was actually thinking of getting it on my wrist too…my dad passed away when I was only 11 so she’d think I got a tattoo saying dad as well but I’d actually just be getting a pretty hilarious tattoo that I kinda love… I just want to add…if I suddenly go missing…blame it on my best friend
He thought it said “Love my grandson”. It translated to something like “I love fat boys”. I think it was a google translate failure of epic proportions
My friend got a tattoo that said “veni vidi vici” in chinese, well so he thought. The tattoo acutally said “three small dishes”
Not my story but a friend of mine.
She had a classmate in college with a kanji tattoo, confused she asked her what it meant.
Turns out it actually said “pig princess”
Lemon water pork dumplings along the spine
Man flexed his tattoo to me in a supermarket claiming it said ‘wisdom’. It meant ‘meat’.
Gets a tattoo in google translate Japanese thinking it says “fear no one” but it really means “I fear everyone”
I didn’t see it, but I went with a friend to get a piercing, and I heard a guy say, I don’t like the way that looks, can you change this line and make the ends do this. The tattoo artist said, “Yea, but that changes the word, you might be going from brave to gay woman for all I know. You can’t change kanji symbols and still have it mean the same thing.”
My friend thought he had “Warrior” on his arm, but it turned out to be “Calendar”
Not sure if it’s already mentioned. I’ve seen a woman has the character “雞” tattooed on her arm. It’s translated to chicken, literally. But in Cantonese we often refer to prostitutes as “chicken”…
I dont speak Chinese but back in college I knew a guy who was one of those douchey guys who likes to brag about how cultured they are and stuff when really they’re just an a**hole. He came back from China with some characters tattooed on him. My friend next to me (who had real bad social anxiety so would never speak in public to non-friends normally) burst out laughing. Douche-guy got kinda annoyed and said “It says Strength, Wisdom, Passion” or some other weird bs like that. My friend then reached into his bag, pulled out his phone, opened up one of those AR translators, pointed it at the guy’s tattoo, and through the magic of AR, revealed it actually said “chicken with noodles”. My friend then said that one of his mates in China told him that a lot of Asian tattooists will often deliberately f**k up tattoos and stuff because they get really annoyed at those douchey people coming over asking for random words to be tattooed onto them.
Buddy of mine got a tattoo with his friends. He wanted it to say something like “honor” or “loyalty” or some dumb s**t, but it actually says “free eggroll with combo purchase”
“Little potato”. He thought it said “respect”.
A guy I saw in the streets had the hiragana “Unko” tatooed on his shoulder.
“Unko” meaning a turd in japanese…
I met a girl who showed me her tattoo saying it said “love”. Sadly it said “weird”. Similar Kanji, so well… (love:愛 or 恋, weird :変)
I once had a roommate placed with me in the apartment our company ran for us here in Japan. He was loud, obnoxious, and I generally didn’t get on well with him. But, you try to get along, so we’d go to the izakaya up the street from time to time with other friends to drink and have a good time. The owners were this wonderful old Japanese couple who loved having all these weird gaijin come and entertain the locals.
Anyway, somehow we get talking about tattoos and the roommate is showing his off. He then says that he got the kanji for “friendship” (友) and “peace” (和) tattooed on his back and lifts his shirt to show everyone. There’s a bit of silence, broken by someone asking, “Who’s Tomokazu?”
What Roommate didn’t know, of course, was that those two kanji in that order was a man’s name.
He reacted well, though, taking a beat and then announcing, “I’M TOMOKAZU!” which became a running joke while he was there.
Not someone I know, but my uncle told me a story about a guy that was a crystal palace fan who thought he was getting “eagles for life” tattooed on him, but the translation in Chinese was more literal and translated to “I give birth to eagles”
My mom sent me a pic of her coworkers new Mandarin tattoo so I could translate it. It was supposed to say something about jesus or religion but it said “green” lol
“tiny chicken” my friend got that thinking it said his name
Please dont use google translate to translate tattoos, i once saw “i once am a katana”
I saw this guy with Japanese characters that translated to “Beep Beep Lettuce”
Saw a girl with 魚 tattooed on her shoulder who swore up and down it meant poison… It means fish
I can read Chinese and I met a guy who wanted to get a tattoo that said “Hope” so i guess they looked it up in the dictionary and tattooed the first 2 characters after “hope” which were “名子“
which says “noun”
On a womans shoulder as a tribute to her fallen brother, in Japanese but translate too “brother sex always”
“Storm drain” on a guy who wanted “The way of water” like Bruce Lee always talked about.
I knew a guy who thought he was getting Honor while in the Navy. He was preparing to transfer out to Japan and wanted something to draw Japanese females’ attention. Turns out that one of the guys at the shop had a 17 year old sister he had played for sex, so they gave him the symbol for Yaoi.
Edit for those not in the know: Yaoi means gay.
I was scrolling through the web at some tattoos for fun,a person said they got a tattoo that said “Strength and courage” in japanese. It actually said “Little animal, big mistake.” Great quote imo,but I dont think they thought so after they got it permanently marked on their skin.
I had a student that transferred from Japan in high school who I was good friends with, a kid came in with a phrase in English that said “come to me if you wish to free your mind”
Then supposedly the same phrase in Japanese, she noticed and whispered the phrase to me which was “Hot bananas are peace”
私はチンポを持っている女性が好きです It means I like women who have cock (Somebody has a really bad friend)
a big muscley tough looking guy with “accommodation” written in big kanji down his bicep.
Later I considered that maybe he was a property developer tho…
Ariane Grande tattooed the words “Barbecue Grill” on her hand.
He wanted the Chinese character for mother, he pronounced it wrong so the tattoo artist wrote horse instead
I was hanging out with some friends at a pub while they were smoking, and a girl from another group was talking about how much she loved “asiany word tattoos” and she finally got her own. She thought that it said “bad b***h” but I’m pretty sure it translated to “rude prostitute” in Mandarin.
Please never ever tattoo your name in Chinese if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t just pick random characters that sound similar and call it a name, there’s special ways to do it.
I’ve met MULTIPLE people who let someone tell them that their Chinese name was 笨蛋 (bendan) as a joke…
Congratulations now you have “idiot” written permanently on your upper arm Brendan, maybe your next tattoo should be “gullible” in Latin…
My boyfriend got tattooed before we met and he meant to get warrior(士) tattooed on him, but the lines are wrong so it really means dirt (土). The bottom line is supposed to be shorter than the top line. His nickname in my family is now doro-chan which is basically a cute way of saying dirt boy.
Finally, a post meant for me. I was determined to get a tattoo. Not sure what I wanted at 19 years old so we went in as a group and I decided on Chinese letters. I chose two different ones that are supposed to read “free” “spirit”. Turns out the spirit translates as “the essence of something” and so the tattoo roughly says “free semen”. I found out when a female Chinese co-worker saw it and turned red with embarrassment.
so this one wrestler/boxer/fighter whatever nicknamed himself the wind of pain and decided to get a Chinese tattoo based on that, so instead of using something bad ass like 痛苦之风（wind of pain)but he ended up with 痛风 which means metabolic arthritis. Yeah good luck with that
I don’t read Japanese but I had a Japanese roommate in college. A guy thought his tattoo said warrior. It said grandmother. I like to think it was a hidden tribute to a badass grandmother.
This guy i saw had “circumcised Squirrel” on his arm in chinese
I knew a girl who had a two character tattoo in Chinese that she thought meant “peace and harmony”. Turns out it actually means “left foot”.
机 on his fist. I haven’t taken Chinese but in Japanese it means ‘desk’.
I have ‘Monkey’ on my wrist because that’s my Chinese zodiac. I know it’s accurate because a Chinese guy asked me if I knew what it meant, and I’m sure he thought I would say ‘faith’ or ‘love’ or something, so when I said ‘monkey’ he looked so relieved. His friend was like ‘you have GOT to stop doing that!’
I was on the subway in NYC and there was a guy who clearly lifted a lot. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and on his jacked arms in chinese were the words “牛肉麵” or “Beef noodle soup” for everyone to see. Man looked ready to get the rest of his favorite restaurant’s menu tattooed on his body.
The common word for “and” gets mistaken a lot of “peace”, which is two words, “and” being the first of them(“wo” vs. “wo ping” in Cantonese). So there are a lot of people who just have the word “and” tatooed on them and I think that’s hilarious.
A friend of mine once told me he saw a guy with something like ‘I don’t speak this language’ tattooed on his arm.
Former colleague of mine had spirit tattooed on his arm in Chinese. Some years later during a trip to China he discovered that what it actually said was gas.
ive seen some funny ones online, but most recently i saw a dude with a tattoo that said “household” on his arm basically (家庭) ,talking about a family more in the sense of a unit rather than something with sentiment
i was at a chinese takeaway in a western city’s suburb with two friends who also understand mandarin and said loudly in mandarin “why does his arm’s tattoo say household?” and the dude didn’t flinch, which tells me he deffo doesn’t understand chinese
家itself means family, but also can mean house. my guess is that he just looked up synonyms in a chinese dictionary without really looking at the proper meaning because he thought two characters together looked better than one lone one.
I’ve seen “public restroom” in chinese
Oooh I love this one! I was once having sex with a guy, about to go down on him when I noticed he had a Chinese tattoo on his inner hip, 凉。I stopped mid-sex, “What do you think your tattoo says.”
“Oh its supposed to mean cool, I know it isn’t right though…”
It actually meant cold to the touch, or disappointing.
Fittingly, the sex was quite disappointing.
“Japanese people are so dumb” Written in Japanese.
A woman who told me her tattoo meant angel. It was actually hermet.
I’m a tattoo artist 愚かなクソ観光客 (stupid friggin tourist) The woman said her friend told her it meant Live Long and Love Life I told her that. It mean stupid f**king tourist glad I knew
Not Chinese or Japanese, but Punjabi. Many many many years ago I had been working and travelling around many countries across Asia and since I was in Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand at the time I took a few days off to unwind. Over the next 3 days I regularly saw this Danish girl at some of the beach bars. She had a large tattoo that looked fairly new going down the right side of her back and torso. The tattoo was a phrase in Punjabi rather than the typical Asian scripts of Sanskrit, Chinese, or Japanese. You don’t see a lot of those so it really stuck out. I am originally from this area in India. I finally mustered up enough courage to speak to her and asked her what the tattoo said. According to her it was an old hippie Sanskrit proverb about bringing peace and love to the world. She had gotten this while travelling across India. She seemed so happy relaying her Indian travel stories, the mysticism, and why she finally got her very first tattoo. I felt so bad for her knowing what it really said. The characters were written in such a large style I couldn’t see how she could maybe convert it into something else. The impression I got from her was she had left India earlier than anticipated so I asked about this. Turns out the last few weeks she had been hassled by quite a lot of guys. Even the tattoo artist was gropey and seemed angry when she kept turning his advances down over multiple visits, simply wanting the tattoo to be finished. I finally told her what the tattoo said and she was mortified. Not believing me at first I video-chatted a female cousin in India telling her only to translate a tattoo without saying why whereby she confirmed what I had said. The girl couldn’t stop crying. She always wore something over her bikini after that. The tattoo actually read “This bi**h is a slut. Use her and abuse her”. I have no idea what happened to her afterwards as I had to get back to work, but I’m presuming she had to somehow get the tattoo removed which going by the size would have been very expensive and painful. Poor girl.
Girl I went to high school with got ” the kanji for freedom” . It said Street lamp.
Worked in Japan for a few years, and shortly after moving back to the US, I spotted a fellow working in a comics shop with a tattoo of a kanji. I recognized it right away, but I asked him what it meant just in case I was horribly wrong. He said it was Chinese, that there wasn’t a direct English translation, and it was about inner strength and determination.
My dude, 苺 means “strawberry.”
I’m an expat living in Japan. Was hanging out with my younger brother back in the States and he wanted to show off his new tattoo: “Look sister, it says ‘sex’!”
He got “gender” tattooed on his neck.
Girl at a festival had got a tattoo down the side of her ribs while traveling in Thailand. A Chinese tattoo. In Thailand. Why?
She brought it up and showed people. Said it meant “live for adventure” or some typical lofty bollocks. Chinese girl we were with starts pissing herself laughing.
Girl was like “what’s so funny?”
It said “picnic table”
My dad once had a student in his freshman music theory class who came in bragging to her friends about her new tattoo that supposedly said “princess” in Chinese. Right before class started, as the talk was dying down, a Chinese exchange student leaned over to her and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “It’s actually more like ‘concubine.'” My dad said he couldn’t keep a straight face the entire class.
“変態豚” (hentai buta) “pervert pig” I s**t you not; he told people it meant “lover of Asian beauty” He didn’t believe me when I told him what it meant so I bet him $20 that the people at the Asian imports shop across the street from the cafe we were at would tell him the same thing. He came back out of the shop a minute later, yelled “f**k you!”, flipped me off, and left. Didn’t come back for his coffee and still owes me that twenty.
We used to play ultimate frisbee with a guy who got a kanji tattoo that he insisted meant ‘fast’ (because he runs so fast). When he left, a friend of mine was chuckling to herself. “It doesn’t mean ‘fast’,” she said. “It means ‘easy’.”
My wife is Japanese, she says she has seen ‘middle school’ on someone before.
I worked at a bar and a really bogan woman came in and ordered a drink. When she turned around I saw she had 自転車 tattooed on her shoulder. That means bicycle in Japanese.
I saw somebody who probably doesnt understand japanese flexing with his japanese tattoo. It is translated to english, surprise surprise, a giant failure.
A guy came up to my Mom and I and asked what character he had tattooed on his ankle. It was the word for fire in Chinese with an extra mark. When we told him there was a typo in the character, he said he knew it was fire but he added the extra line to make it look cooler.
“Kitchen” – confused the kanji, what he wanted Ihave no idea. “Fat man” – he wanted “big guy” (tough guy?) apparently.
Ariana Grande’s hand tattoo mix up was a huge deal in Japanese media for a while too.
Chinese speaker here. In high school I worked at a CVS. A white woman showed up at the register with a very poorly drawn 力 tattoo, and I said “cool tattoo, means power”. She scoffed and replied to me like I was satan himself, and said “you obviously don’t understand Chinese “letters” the tattoo artist told me it means the strength to overcome anything, even breast cancer…” then she rolled her eyes at me and walked away.
For me it was something someone claimed was “chinese writing” but barely resembled any Chinese characters. It just looked like some squiggles. They thought it was love 爱 but it definitely wasn’t.
Saw someone tattooed death believing it means love.
Not me but my ex was from China and told me someone’s once said, “Intentional DVD Rental.”
“冷奴” each characteristic means 冷=cool and 奴=guy but when they are together, it means “cool tofu”
I saw a guy who said he got a tattoo in Japanese that said be not defeated by rain (Ame ni mo makezu). A famous Japanese poem. What was written was random Chinese characters that I didn’t understand at all. When I broke the news to him that that’s just random Chinese characters he said that I clearly don’t know Japanese. I wrote it out in Japanese for him, still didn’t believe me. Then I pulled out my phone asked Google sensei the answer. I showed him the top result that was the exact same as what I wrote. He started crying.
My wife is of Chinese descent, and one day a coworker comes in with a new tattoo in Japanese Kanji. In Japanese that character meant something like “Serenity” or something, but in Chinese it meant “I’m slow.”
So, if you’re getting a tattoo of either Kanji or Chinese characters, check the OTHER language as well.
I saw one person with a tattoo in tradition Vietnamese that said, basically “People ride me in cars.” I’m assuming he was trying to say something to the affect of “Life is a highway”
A friend tattooed “kuso” (in romaji), he though it meant warrior… It means s**t
“我是粪” Dude thought it meant “The s**t.” (Actually means “I’m s**t”) Thank god it was only a temporary tatoo but that day the people that understood chinese in my class had a great laugh.
A friend of mine had a tatt shop. He put up a flash page with kanji for stuff like “a**hole”, “bastard”, etc. If anyone asked the meaning, he would honestly tell them. However he would regularly get people come in, see the character, think it “looked cool” and get it inked on without ever bothering to ask. He thought that was hilarious.
I randomly saw a guy with a Korean neck tattoo at a grocery that translated to “beef.” He was coincidentally in that section of the store.
A girl had the word ‘rooster’ written on her face, which is 公鸡. One character on each cheek. Except 鸡 is also a Chinese slang for w**re.
Had 2 friends so this. One chose her tatt from a menu, with characters she thought looked nice – now she had “cheap but nice” down her spine.
Another mate lost a bet and has “dim sim 3 for 5 dollar” on his forearm.
Both tatts in Chinese characters.